My Weekend at Bernie’s
February 13, 2019-
BERNIE MARCUS is one of the founders of The Home Depot. He’s also one of the most generous philanthropists in the country. We featured him on Crazy Good Turns during Season 2 — one of my favorite episodes. I think it captures some of the spark that makes him unique as an entrepreneur and person.
This past weekend, my wife and I had the privilege of staying at Bernie and Billi Marcus’s house in Florida. I could make many comments about their gracious hospitality and the wide-ranging conversations we had.
But I am going to keep this note to one important story.
Twelve years ago, when I became CEO of Home Depot, no one in the company knew who I was. To the extent that anyone knew anything about me, they knew:
- I had little retail experience
- I had worked at General Electric for over a decade, and…
- I was a lawyer
This was not a set of qualifications to inspire confidence. My predecessor was also from GE and had little retail experience. That had not gone well.
It is fair to say that my selection as CEO did not generate a lot of enthusiasm.
The first call I made as CEO was to Bernie, who at that point had no formal connection with the company. Over the next eight years, he gave me invaluable advice across a range of issues.
The first thing Bernie did for me was singularly important.
I asked him to come to our annual store managers’ meeting. It’s a gathering of thousands, which is part inspirational meeting, part business event.
He could very easily have declined. But he didn’t.
Bernie came, and his appearance at the meeting was viewed as a vote of confidence. Comments from store managers after the meeting all expressed the same theme: We don’t know this guy, but if Bernie is out on the stage with him, he must be OK.
That stamp of approval made an enormous difference to me.
Crazy Good Turns take many forms. We can give our time, our resources, or our passion and commitment. Sometimes what we give is our approval.
Our individual reputations are our biggest assets. We leverage them when we grant our approval and trust in others. Bernie did that for me.
This weekend was a reminder of how important and meaningful that can be.
Has someone ever done a Crazy Good Turn for you at work? If so, tell me about it at email@example.com.
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Check Out the Smiles on These Kids’ Faces
October 16, 2018-
Here’s something that will make your day brighter.
Those are just some of the smiles to come from our campaign so far. The pictures are from games this season at Oklahoma and Ohio State, which hosted 10 kids and their caretakers.
Those families attended at no cost, thanks to those of you who’ve signed up for our #CrazyGoodForKids Gameday campaign.
While sports may seem like just fun and games to some, but the experiences you’ve provided to these kids and their families is a big deal.
Earlier this season, we introduced you to Terry Davis, who’s son Taylor had been diagnosed with leukemia. Terry described what a day as a Special Spectator is like. Now we’d like to share what he said about the lasting impact of that experience:
When you check out the full episode, you can hear the emotional and inspiring story of how Special Spectators came about. You’ll also learn the incredible lengths that Blake goes to in order to give these incredible experiences to more than 10,000 kids — and counting.
Here’s one more picture you help make possible when you sign up for our campaign:
Thanks for being part of something special!
(And if you haven’t signed up yet, join in here — it’s free!)
Marginalia: A Better Way to Read
October 8, 2018-
My father left me a wonderful collection of books. Even better, he left me books that contained his written comments in the margins.
His comments make the book live for me. Those books are far more important to me because of his comments. I learn from, and connect to, his presence — even from simple underlining.
Marking up a book in this way is known as marginalia. The practice is at least as old as mechanical book printing. Cambridge University has an exhibit that catalogs notes left in books printed from 1450-1550. (Curators selected that period because Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press came online by 1450.)
Far more recently, author and artist Austin Kleon wrote about the importance of “Reading with a Pencil” on his blog.
I’d like to share my margin notes from Kleon’s post with you. The entry contains a great quote from a friend of his:
Every piece of art I’ve ever made was because I saw bad and could do better, or saw great and needed to catch up.
This is a quote I would underline.
Substitute “crazy good turn” for “piece of art” in that quote, and you have one of the dominant forces at work in the stories featured in our podcasts.
The people we highlight may set out to do good because they saw something bad and wanted to fix it. (Georgie Smith launching A Sense of Home in response to a shortcoming in the Foster Care system is a great example of this.)
Or they draw inspiration from someone who’s done something great, and try to emulate it. (Here you could look to Frank Siller and his family’s work with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, carrying on the legacy of NYC Firefighter Stephen Siller.)
In either case, they aren’t just bearing witness to the world. They’re seeing what’s there, then inserting themselves into the action — just as a reader armed with a pencil can shape the story into something entirely new on their own.
In our increasingly digital world — a universe of widely distributed photos and podcasts — what is our equivalent of ‘reading with a pencil’?
It is writing comments, or making the effort to like or share content. And the step forward in the digital world is that our marginalia can be seen by others and enrich their experience.
As I write that, it seems like a wildly optimistic view of digital commentary. We’ve all seen how dialog online can spiral into hateful and divisive words.
But it doesn’t seem too optimistic for the Crazy Good Turns community. Your comments and observations — whether on our Facebook wall, @ me on Twitter, or to my personal email — have been consistently thoughtful, and often enrich my view of the stories we’ve told.
To everyone who has taken the time to write something after one of our episodes — or simply to “like” it or share it — many thanks for listening with your digital pencil!
12 Camps for Kids Who Need a Little Help
August 7, 2018-
Think back to the best summer camp you ever attended, and days spent exploring the woods, playing capture the flag, and climbing rock walls likely come to mind. Sure, the activities were a blast, but experts say that when you (or your kids) spend a week or weekend at camp, something even more powerful happens.
“There many benefits provided by nature that can’t be found in a non-camp setting,” says Dr. Irene McClatchey, Director of the MSW Program for the Department of Social Work and Human Services at Kennesaw State University. A short list of those benefits of camping includes:
- Time spent in nature can improve your attention and memory, according to Italian research
- Problem solving increases self esteem and independence, both of which are crucial components for growth, according to research from Florida State University
- The American Camp Association says the great outdoors can promote honesty, trust, and respect among campers
- Camp participants get a chance to work together and solve problems with each other during activities, McClatchey says. These shared experiences break down walls and bring people together more quickly. At camp, strangers become friends within a matter of days or hours.
Bonding over your shared skills, hobbies, and experiences made the time camp great, and possibly even transformative. That’s the principle that makes many modern camps successful, especially those programs designed for children who have been exposed to traumas.
In a recent episode of Crazy Good Turns, counselors and volunteers at Camp HOPE in Wisconsin, a retreat for kids and adults dealing with the death of a loved one, shared how they were able to shed enormous emotional burdens within a single weekend. The special thing about Camp HOPE is that 90 percent of the people who work there have also lost a close family member or friend.
“Knowing that everyone there has experienced trauma helps the campers understand organically that they aren’t alone,” McClatchey says. In 1995, she developed Camp MAGIK, a similar healing camp in Georgia for bereaved children and adolescents.
There many other camps in the U.S. like Camp HOPE and Camp MAGIK that provide safe environments where kids can heal next to others just like them—and have a blast in the process. (The similarly named Camp HOPE America, for example, is the first camping and mentoring initiative in the U.S. to focus on children exposed to domestic violence.) Here are 10 more:
This free summer camp is for children ages 8-15 whose parents are wounded, injured, ill, or fallen military service members.
Where: More than 20 locations including Georgia, Florida, and Virginia.
Children ages 9-12 can attend this camp, meant for kids who have been impacted by substance abuse in their families, for free.
Where: 13 locations including New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
This camp, for children and teens ages 6-17, is the country’s largest bereavement program for kids grieving the death of a significant person in their lives.
Where: Locations in every Major League Baseball city and other additional sites in the U.S. and Canada.
Massachusetts children who are experiencing feelings of hopeless and low self-image, but have problems expressing them in a healthy way, can attend this weekend camp.
Where: Duxbury, Massachusetts
This weeklong camp gives foster kids ages 6-12 the opportunity to participate in activities designed to boost their success and self-esteem.
Where: Locations in more than 40 states and other countries.
This wilderness expedition is intended for youth and young adults at risk of academic failure and delinquency.
Where: 16 locations, including the Pacific Northwest, Central America, and India
Kentucky campers ages 6-11 can attend this weeklong retreat for children with behavioral, emotional, or physical needs who are in foster care or in the custody of their grandparents.
Where: Lebanon Junction, Kentucky
Children ages 8-17 who have lost a parent or sibling within the last 3 years to cancer or sickle cell anemia can attend this New York-based camp.
Where: Mendon, New York
This camp is for children in San Diego who have been exposed to child abuse, abandonment, neglect, and have been placed in foster care. The program allows separated siblings to come together.
Where: San Diego, California
Children in Texas who have been involved in a traumatic accident can attend this weekend retreat.
Where: Plano, Texas
To hear more about the transformative power of camping, check out our episode on Wisconsin’s Camp HOPE.
Faces of Neurodiversity: Meet the Precisionists
February 13, 2018-
What is neurodiversity? I hadn’t known before we started this episode on The Precisionists, Inc. Founder Ernie Dianastasis mentioned the term during our interview, when he credited the term to a book called “NeuroTribes” by Stephen Silberman. Up until that moment, I was a clueless neurotypical.
A neurotypical, by the way, is someone who is not on the autism spectrum. Those who are on the spectrum are known as neurodiverse.
The book largely makes the same point that Dianastasis did in our episode: People on the spectrum are cognitively different. And those differences present the opportunity to gain new insights.
Ernie says the book makes the case that “the best and most innovative companies are going to be the ones where neurodiverse and neurotypical people are working side by side, doing great things together.”
That’s certainly what The Precisionists are doing. And the benefits go far beyond money. What stood out most to our team during the production of this episode wasn’t just that Dianastasis and his views on neurodiversity were creating jobs — it was the impact that those jobs were having on people’s lives. We spoke with several of the people on staff at TPI and asked about their experiences. Here is what they said.
“I didn’t learn I had autism until I was 26 years old. In retrospect, it describes so much about my past.
“Why I was bullied growing up. Why I never wanted to go over to friends’ houses. Why I always wanted to just play outside and see what was under the rocks instead of playing football. I didn’t realize it at the time.
“Despite the many issues I had socially all the way through high school, the structure allowed me to thrive academically, which made me a straight-A student and allowed me to get into Stanford.
“After college was my first time really just having to kind of advocate for myself. I was thrown out into the world and didn’t really have the tool set to know how to find a job. I mean, I knew the basics of how to write a cover letter and try to get interview. But a lot of the social parts, I didn’t know.
“So all I really had success with in terms of trying to find a more permanent or nine-to-six type of job would be through temp employment agencies. But those were always very short gigs. I had no idea where I would go, like what company I’d be going into.
“One place I worked, it was the same job every day. But that wasn’t the issue. The issue was the people.
“One thing about people on the spectrum is a lot of us have to have time to decompress after a work day or a social situation. So at the end of a work day, I think it’s great that a lot of neurotypicals can go and socialize more right away after work. But because I didn’t, people thought I didn’t like them. I even said it doesn’t mean anything — you know, ‘I think you guys are cool.’ But that, combined with probably some of the facial expressions I was making, made people think I didn’t like them. A couple started to kind of bully me — well, not kind of, they would bully me in the workplace verbally.
“At the Precisionists, just from the very beginning, everybody’s been on the autism spectrum. So everybody there is different and has their own foibles and idiosyncrasies. But what’s wonderful is everybody is tolerant and welcoming of everybody’s foibles and idiosyncrasies, instead of using those differences to try to put other people down.” – Michael Stat
“If it was a traditional interview, a lot of these individuals would never get past the first couple of minutes. Because they may be uncomfortable looking someone in the eye or shaking their hand or whatever it would be. The red flags would go up in a traditional HR interview.
“At the end of the day, how someone shakes your hand, or whether they look you in the eye or not, has no bearing in terms of whether they’re going to be strong performers in a technical job.
“So instead of the interview, each person would get a project to do with a Lego Mindstorm. Now, a Mindstorm is different than just the Lego toys that we all grew up playing with. It’s a programmable robot. It’s a very sophisticated toy.
“And it’s also a great ice breaker. When candidates are coming in, it’s a very non-threatening way to just develop rapport and have people feel comfortable. Instead of sitting down and doing a tense interview, it’s ‘Hey, here’s a Lego project.’ And we bring in pizza or popcorn and just make it a very comfortable and fun thing to do.” – Ernie Dianastasis, founder and CEO
“I’ve never worked with other people who have autism before. I was diagnosed with it when I was about three. I know sometimes people think I don’t have autism, but it’s still there.” – Clarence Jackson
“It was quite a shock to be around people who were just like me.
“It’s such a rare breed. I was really amazed that these people were right on the same page where I am, intellectually and socially. I felt like I belonged.
“When I got hired, I was so happy. I’d been living in group homes, stuck in that loop for about four years. I was just kind of a ward of the state. As soon as I got the job, I hightailed it out of there.
“It was a huge milestone. I’m working on getting a car now.” – Kalyn Morris
“Sometimes I get the impression that sometimes people think autism is synonymous with being slow or dyslexic, when really it’s not. If you have high functioning autism, like me, you can still learn. It just takes awhile to get a grip on things. Practice makes perfect.” – Patrick Kenneally
“It’s so fun to do this. I like to scan a lot of pages. When I scan a lot of pages, I sometimes like to hang out at my desk and draw for a few minutes or seconds until I type in the data and all.
“I also work at the courthouse. Only on Thursdays though.
“Not only do I get to work with other people who have autism, I can also work with anyone. I’m showing that it’s diverse-abling them, not disabling them from anything. We give them more abilities.” – Gregory Joseph Pagano Jr.
“I have a couple of degrees. One is an Associate Degree from Bell Tech in Computer Information Systems. Then a bachelor’s in Game Design Development from Wilmington. But I’d never worked in IT technology. Well, the only other work I’d done — and this was like 10 years earlier — is I worked at Circuit City.” – Matthew Norman
“When Michael wrote his college essay, that I think helped get him into Stanford, I think the opening sentence was something like, ‘I am not from this world.’
“We later found a website called WrongPlanet.net. The idea that this is the wrong planet for some people. I think shows how they feel like they’re a stranger in a strange land.
“Michael was always a model student. In some cases we would hear from longtime teachers who said he was the best they had ever taught — ever — in one subject or another. But Michael was not engaged in traditional social relationships with the other kids.
“Following college, as he ran into difficulties, somebody along the way said, ‘Could he have Asperger’s?’ And I hadn’t even heard of the word. Somebody referred me to a book written by a gentleman from Australia, and I started reading this book and said, ‘How can this guy in Australia know my son?’ We all finally, said, ‘Yes, now this explains things.’ And that was a big step forward.
“Society — especially the meanest part of society — tends to ostracize people who are in the minority. There are too many people who build themselves up by tearing other people down, and people like Michael become the victims of that, and become isolated.
“I think that you can help by making this Earth the right planet for everyone. If you can embrace the amazing diversity of talent that’s in all people, with kindness and with thoughtfulness, then the world will be a better place and we will all have made a important difference.” – Richard Stat, Michael Stat’s dad.
Creating a Place Where Anything is Possible for Kids with Cancer: A Conversation with Sally Hale of Camp Sunshine
August 15, 2017-
For 35 years Sally Hale has helped create fun times and fond memories for kids with cancer and their families.
When Camp Sunshine in Georgia became one of the first summer camps in the world specifically designed to serve kids and teenagers fighting the disease, Hale was the camp nurse. Today she oversees all of Camp Sunshine, which not only offers two weeks of camps but also provides year-round support for kids and their families both inside the hospital and out.
When Hale sat down with Crazy Good Turns for our profile of Camp Sunshine in S02 Episode 12, she told us about how she got her start at the camp, why its programming has evolved and expanded so far beyond its summer getaways, and how her organization helps those affected by cancer heal not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
Tell me about your upbringing, and how it led you to where you are today.
SALLY HALE: My family and my community was all about taking care of those around you. It was a community that, if somebody needed help, you pitched in and helped. You didn’t expect any less. It was just ingrained into me: You develop a community of support around you, and you support and help others. I didn’t really think of that as giving back. I didn’t think of it as philanthropy.
Now that I look back, I realize that’s the basis of a camp community—giving back, broadening your community and helping those in need.
And you went on to become a nurse. Can you tell me how that came about?
HALE: I was a nurse and started working in Atlanta right out of college, and went to graduate school. I was part of the pediatric oncology group at Emory and Egleston Hospital, which is now a part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, when Dorothy Jordan (Camp Sunshine’s founder) approached me.
I did not know Dorothy, but she knew of me. And she approached me and said, ‘I’ve got this idea to start a camp for children with cancer. What do you think about it?’
At that time there were only a handful of camps for children with cancer in the country. I knew of them because pediatric oncology is really a small community.
I said, ‘It’s a great idea. We don’t have the time to start it, but if you start it, I’ll help you. I’ll make sure that the doctors and nurses know about it, and that the parents know about it, and I’ll be there with you.’ So that’s how it all got started, really.
So you were a member of the founding team then, right?
HALE: I was. I was the camp nurse the very first year. I got the doctor there, Dr. Ray Gablazar , our camp doctor. I started telling the parents about it in the clinic. I would say I’m going to be there, Dr. Ray Gab’s going to be there, it’s safe to send your kids there.
We started planning it in 1982, and 1983 was our first camp. We had 38 kids that very first year and a handful of our own counselors, doctors, and nurses. We’d talked to other camps who had gotten started around the country but again there were only a handful. Dorothy spoke with them, she visited one of the camps up in Chicago, and we learned from them. They were very open to sharing what they knew, and what their experiences were. Together we took a leap of faith—and the parents certainly took a leap of faith in sending their kids that very first year.
Was it hard to convince parents to let their kids go for a week?
HALE: You know, now that I look back at it, I think it probably was hard for the parents to send their kids that first week. In fact, some parents said, “Not this first year. I might send them next year.”
But they trusted us. They knew me. I took care of their children. They knew Dr. Ray Gab. That was a tremendous amount of faith and trust they put in us to send their child. And these were kids that couldn’t go to other camps. So I think the parents learned that it was a gift to their child to be able to send them.
Where was camp back then?
HALE: Our first camp was on Lake Burton at High Harbour. It is now a YMCA camp. At that time, it was privately owned and we didn’t know if we’d have enough money to pay the bill. I think it was something like $18,000, which is incredible now to think, but we didn’t know. We just had supporters who were behind us. Dorothy really made sure that we had the money.
Today there are more than 120 camps for kids with cancer. What would you say differentiates Camp Sunshine?
HALE: Our program now is so much more than a summer camp. A lot of the camps that are in existence are strong, but they’re one week in the summer. We’re not only two weeks, but over 140 programs during the year. We run programs year-round. Nine weekends and two weeks out at Camp Twin Lakes.
We also have programs at Camp Sunshine House. We have programs around the state. We have groups. Next week, we’re sending a group of teenagers out to Colorado for an adventure program with the Colorado Outward Bound School. So we’re doing things year-round.
What kinds of programs are held at Camp Sunshine House?
HALE: We have support programs for families. We host nights where parents learn about sending their child away to camp at the first time. We have family nights for those who’ve lost their child to cancer, where they can come back into a community of people who understand.
We have lock-ins for teenagers and so they come on an evening, spend the night, stay up all night, and are together or dance, or a preschool program. Yoga classes for parents. We just do things all year-round. We’re also in the hospital on a weekly basis and actually take camp to the hospital.
What happens then?
HALE: We are in the hospital every week, meeting families, meeting children who are newly diagnosed, communicating with staff. And then, once a month, we take our camp program to the hospital. Both campuses of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as well as the Aflac Cancer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
We call it “Sunshine To You.” They get hats. They get T-shirts. They get to go in the playroom and play basketball or archery or do arts and crafts, or we’ll bring a magic show. It gets the kids out of the hospital bed. It gets them out of their rooms and interacting with each other.
Kids with cancer just want to be kids. They have had so much taken away from them. But when you put them in that kind of environment, they just are kids. They want to play and communicate with each other and make friends. That’s not only what “Sunshine To You” in the hospital does, but that’s also the basis of all of our programs.
I understand there are also bereavement weekends. Can you describe how they came about?
HALE: Families that come to Camp Sunshine programs, especially our family camp weekends, are embraced by a community of support. And when they lose a child to cancer, not only have they lost that child, but so much of their support system. There are not a lot of people out there who understand that same kind of grief.
We had a parent come to us and say, ‘You told us you’re there for us throughout our cancer journey. We’re still on that. We’ve lost a child and now we’ve lost our community and support. We need to be around other families who’ve experienced this.’ So they really challenged us to look at that journey beyond cancer and help them.
So we started a bereavement program. We started a “Remember the Sunshine Family” weekend for families who’ve lost a child, and that’s now extended to monthly support groups for those families.
And what year did that weekend start?
HALE: We’ve had 13 “Remember the Sunshine” weekends and we have served over 278 families in that program. The weekend is just like any other family camp weekend. The families come together. They each get their own cabin. We have activities where they can choose either to do an activity as a family or they might split up and somebody might go to archery and others are boating.
It’s a weekend where they can be together in a community where the other people understand them. And if they are fishing and all of a sudden break down into tears, people understand that. If they want to walk down to the cabin where their child spent five summers in a cabin as a camper and see what’s on the walls and open the door and be in that space because that’s where they brought their child, people understand that.
They don’t have to apologize for wanting to talk about their child, their experience and their grief. But a lot of times, they’re just having fun together as a family.
I have to say—and you can comment on this if you want—but we’ve done a lot of site visits, and the one to Camp Sunshine was one of the most fun and uplifting. Which was not at all what I expected. It was so full of joy.
HALE: A lot of people, when they come to visit Camp Sunshine, feel that it’s going to be sad. But you have to remember that kids with cancer are kids. They desperately want to be children.
They’re so different from adults, because adults who have cancer have the disease and their treatment on their minds. They’re filled with worries.
Kids—when you remove them from that clinic space, that hospital space, the overprotectiveness of their parents—they just want to be kids. They want to go out and play and do what any other child would want. That’s why it’s filled with lots of joy and love. It’s a place where anything’s possible.
Where did the bracelets come from? When did that start, and how?
HALE: The bracelets started our very first year. It came from Camp One Step At A Time, which is the camp I mentioned in Chicago that Dorothy had visited when she was planning our very first camp, and they had friendship bracelets made out of those fishing swivels. We adopted that tradition from the camp in Chicago.
Every year, we put different colored beads on it. The first year, we had no beads, and then we started adding the beads. And you only get them when you come to summer camp, none of our other programs. They’re very special. People will wear them for years and years. We’ve seen brides wrap them around their bouquets. Children want to wear them. They’re very special. They’ll keep them in a little memory box.
Do you have a story in your tenure there that really moved you?
HALE: There are a million. I will tell you a recent story that kind of astounded me.
It was a little girl who had been coming to camp for several years. Last year, she could not come because she was so sick and she was in New York having treatment. But she wanted to come and her surgeons in New York said, ‘We are going to try to get you there. We’re going to do this surgery and we’re going to hope you’re going to recover from the surgery and be well enough to go to camp.’ And she just said, ‘I need to be there, I need to be there.’
Well, she had the surgery and there were more complications and she was not able to come. And her doctors said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to make it there this year. We’ve really tried, but I don’t think you’re going to.’ And she told her parents, ‘I just need to be there, even if I’m on a bed. You don’t understand, I just need to be there with my friends.’
While she wasn’t able to get there last year, she was there this year, which was great. And she’s doing really well. But when her father was telling me that story, he said it was in that moment that they realized that, while they were focusing on healing her body and curing the cancer, we were focused on healing her spirits and healing her emotionally. And that was every bit as important. So that really struck me.
You have to deal with tragic personal loss. How do you cope with that?
HALE: It’s really tough. We had a young man years ago who made it to camp in a helicopter for a visit, a two-hour visit from the hospital. We were able to get the Governor’s helicopter. They flew him to come to camp and all these friends gathered around to welcome him and make sure that the two hours at camp that he got to see everybody. He flew back to the hospital and he died the next morning. But he was there.
The loss—not only for us as volunteers, but for all of his friends—was incredible. That’s something that we had to experience collectively. That was in our early days, and what I realized is that the community rallies together and supports each other, and it was so important for those teenagers to be together. Yes, it is very, very sad. But you realize what a gift we’ve been able to give to that young man. And what a gift his parents gave to us to entrust us with the last few hours of his life. So we were able to do something that no one else could do for him at that point and stage.
Camp can add to that person’s life and enrich it. And they teach us lessons that we never forget. We remember them forever.
A Conversation with Becca Stevens of Thistle Farms
August 1, 2017-
Rev. Becca Stevens is the founder of Thistle Farms and Magdalene House, which have helped hundreds of women escape addiction, trafficking and violence—work that’s rooted in the tragedy and abuse she herself faced at a young age. When she sat down with Crazy Good Turns for Episode 11 of Season 2, Stevens opened up about how her own road to healing led her to be an advocate for others, and how her organization plans to help more women on an international scale in the future.
Why don’t we start by talking about your background—where you were born and raised and what your childhood was like?
BECCA STEVENS: I was raised here, Nashville, Tennessee. My whole family comes from Connecticut and New York. We moved down here in 1968 and I was a little girl. Mom and Dad pack up a panel-sided station wagon, we drive down and then he was killed by a drunk driver that same year. My mom was 35 years old and left with five kids.
We went straight to being on the dole really. We were raised on social security. My mom worked in daycare. Our vacation, once a year, we all piled in and went down to Chattanooga to see Rock City, Tennessee. It was pretty small world really. That’s a lot of times what happens when people have some tragedy—they’re thrown into a pretty small world, trying to keep things together.
The other thing that happens to a lot of people, a lot of the women I serve, and what happened to me is the guy that came in and took my dad’s jobs—my dad was an episcopal priest—and the guy who came in to the church to help out while they were looking for another pastor, he really took advantage of my family and me. He abused me sexually for several years. It all started in the church.
In some ways it was a really startling way to wake up into the world as the death of your dad and an abuser coming right in on the heels of that.
In another way, while the world was small, I had a window. I could sense that there were communities that were safe, and communities that were really unsafe. My mom was a really safe place. Many, many of the folks I serve don’t have that. I’m so grateful to her. And I’m really grateful that I had a sense of wellbeing and belonging through it all. I don’t know where that came from, but it feels like one of the biggest gifts in my life. I knew that in some ways, I was probably stronger than the guy who was abusing me. I knew that this wasn’t going to be my story.
How would you describe yourself as a little girl?
STEVENS: I think I was always an entrepreneur, always looking for ways that I could make some money. And I was pretty creative. I was really defiant, but I was also really scared of a lot of stuff. I looked brave at school, but I was scared to get to school. I was scared to stand at the bus stop. I think that’s what happens a lot of times when kids are abused or thrown into violence. It’s like you trade your innocence in for fear. I could be fearful of things that I don’t think anybody even knew.
I had a defiant spirit with authority in many, many ways. But I sailed through school. I always had that as one of the gifts. School was never even a bit of a problem.
Meaning you were a great student?
STEVENS: I was. Isn’t that crazy? I was a math major in college. Always loved studying. I always loved books.
One of the things I also read was that one lesson of your abuse as a child was learning not to trust authority. How has that lesson come to play out in your life?
STEVENS: Oh my Lord. That is not unique to me. That fear of authority once you’ve been abused is pretty common. The reason that prisons don’t work for the vast majority of women who’ve experienced abuse and trauma as kids, because that’s just a trigger. It’s more traumatizing, doesn’t help.
In some ways, it’s been a gift, because I’ve felt wonderful being an entrepreneur and being in a community. I don’t have to be the boss. I can be in the boat with other people and I love that and I love feeling like I’m on a team.
It’s been hard in some ways, because I’m an episcopal priest. So, you have a bishop and all those relationships over the 25 years I’ve been ordained it’s, has been a little bit rocky. I’ve had some great experiences, but it’s been hard. I remember going through seminary and thinking, “Okay, my goal is not to cry when I have to go talk to the bishop.” I never achieved that goal when I was in seminary.
You cried every time?
STEVENS: Every time. Can you imagine?
Why did you cry?
STEVENS: I think because, it was very authoritarian. It was very…I don’t know what the word is. It was so close to my heart.
With all the stuff I had gone through growing up, God was never my problem. It was this loving presence, this feeling of wellbeing. But the institution was really hard for me. I think it was somehow they were going to try to direct what I was feeling led to do in my work.
I knew that the work I wanted to do, I did not want it to be a religious organization. I never wanted the community of Thistle Farms to be a faith based organization, because I think the church had not been that safe for me.
I wanted to do it out of my faith and out of love, but I wanted it to be a free-standing, open community where anybody could choose their path of spiritual wellbeing. For some people that means not doing anything. For other people it means they become whatever denomination or faith they feel led to. But I wasn’t going to be in control of that. When you’re in the church, that’s really hard for them to fathom.
We don’t have to make everybody believe what we believe. I go around and talk all over the country. I guarantee you that I’m either “not Christian enough” or “too Christian” for most people I talk to. It’s like, don’t worry about it. Just live your life.
You don’t have to change me. I don’t have to agree with you. All we have to do is figure out how to love each other and work together to help people. That’s what we’re called to do—just love the world.
Let’s get into Magdalene and Thistle Farms, and how everything got started. It was interesting to read in your book Snake Oil that you had been thinking about something like Magdalene for awhile, but then the impetus was actually you putting your son into a car seat.
STEVENS: I started doing work with women who were on the streets and women in prison. I knew I wanted to do it differently.
I wanted to create communities. I didn’t want shelters, halfway houses, treatment centers. I wanted a community and a sanctuary. And I thought it would be beautiful to have no authority in the house, and just to have the women be together and we could figure out together what healing would look like for them.
I mean, from all the trauma, all the trafficking, abuse, addiction, prostitution—all of it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But it’s much harder to do things than to say it, or think it, or even dream it.
My husband was on the road for the country music record he was doing at the time. I had one son and I was pregnant with my second son. I was downtown working with some homeless women, and it was at the end of the day. I had my son with me and I was putting him in the car seat. He was doing that arching back thing, being hard to maneuver into the car. And all of the sudden he says to me, “Hey mama, why is that lady smiling?”
Across the street from where we were working at the homeless center, there was a strip club called The Classic Cat. And there was a huge poster outside of a woman in a catsuit, scantily clad, smiling. Just ear to ear. Cat ear to cat ear.
I looked at him as he said it. Then I looked up there. And I just thought how that question broke my heart, because someday my little boy is not going to ask that question of “Why is this grown woman in a catsuit on a poster smiling?” It will blend into the whole landscape of how women have become commodities, and are bought and sold for less than you can buy and sell a pet cat.
As I was driving home I thought: I’m done thinking about it. I want him to know that I did something on behalf of women, and that he’s going to be able to love and respect women. We’re going to start this tomorrow. And that was it.
Can you describe the typical journey that women go through to get to Magdalene?
STEVENS: We have 100 women on our waiting list. We have women from every state that want to be a part of this community and want to join in this powerful witness for how love heals for women who have histories of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution. We have about 40 sister communities now around the country that have adopted this model.
The way women get there—to any of these communities, including ours—is a pretty universal story that individual women just bear on their backs. It starts in childhood trauma. On average the women that we serve are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11 and they hit the streets on average between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. They have experienced the inside of prison walls. They have endured the underside of bridges. They have survived the backside of anger. All of it.
When they come to us, most of the women don’t really have hardly anything but some hope. They come and the first thing that happens is they’re allowed to rest. Just go to bed and relax. This is your space, your place. They start going to groups, whether it’s trauma therapy groups, or prostitution groups, or life skills classes, or financial classes, parenting classes. They go to classes three days a week and they go to IOT, which is Intensive Outpatient Therapy, to start learning about what they’re triggers are and what their addiction is.
Then they go to a doctor and a dentist. They get assessments and find out how much damage has been done to their bodies, and what they need to have happen. They find a therapist and they begin to have a safe place. Because we’re not just talking about healing from the streets. We have to go back a lot farther than that, because nobody at five or six years old thinks, “What I’d really like to do is be prostituted around the country.” That’s not anybody’s ideal way of living.
What happened along the way was the result. Some people say, “It’s the choices women make.” But it’s like, if that is the choice what were the options?
Anyway, once they start that journey, they stay for maybe six months in that place. Then, they’re invited to come to work. They can work anywhere they want. They can come to Thistle Farms. They can work outside Thistle Farms. Again, they don’t pay any rent. They pull up their credit record and find out how much damage they had done. The wake of the life on the streets and on back page is unbelievable. They probably have to start paying off the courts and paying, if they have kids, maybe back child support. But they can go to work and they can start earning money towards that and we’ll match a savings program over the next year so you can make sure you can get a car. You can start getting credit and you can get ready to start looking at apartments or thinking about some housing options.
All of that stuff happens in the second year. They start seeing their kids and they get back together with their kids. They get their bodies back in, together. All of that happens.
Why is healing so hard?
STEVENS: I think people think of healing as miracle cures. That’s not what we’re talking about. You can’t touch somebody on the shoulder and have all of the trauma and all the pain go away, or the arm grow back. That’s not how it works.
Healing is, thank God, much deeper and precious than that. It is this intentional walk for all of us towards wholeness— towards, I think, the original wholeness and grace that we were born with. It shouldn’t come easy. It shouldn’t come without a cost. It shouldn’t come without intention.
It’s a gift, but we work with it to be mindful of it. It’s not like this entity. You can’t buy it in a box. It’s not like that. It’s this gift that’s for all of us. I mean, everybody. There’s nobody that doesn’t get that gift. There’s healing at death beds. There’s healing at births. There’s healing all along. It’s a really broad way and a really intentional way of thinking about this beautiful gift of healing.
Let’s step back and look at some of the bigger systemic policy issues around sex trafficking, Can you just describe what those issues are, what the country and the world are doing right, and what we could be doing better?
STEVENS: The thing we’ve done really well, is we have started using the word “trafficking.” Now we don’t refer to girls who are 14 years old on the streets selling their bodies or being sold by people as prostitutes. We get that it is an injustice being perpetrated on them against their ability to fight it. When you make kids addicts early and get them hooked on a lifestyle, and living in fear and in trauma, they’re vulnerable.
The good thing is that there is this new language around trafficking where we realize the connection between a criminal and a victim, and how most of women we have criminalized were victims way before that. We can have compassion again. We can start writing legislation that actually works. We can start having systems that are less bureaucratic. We can shorten prison sentences. When we do that, we’re being about healing process for the women. And they see, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, it’s not just me.” This is a pattern and we have perpetrated this pattern.
The more you have real survivor leaders out there speaking and sharing their stories, the more the whole culture starts to change.
Lastly, what’s your long term vision for Thistle Farms?
STEVENS: I’ve never had this really clear vision. I have glimpses, maybe, of things I want to do. And then things come along and I get that it’s the right direction to head in. I trust that a lot more than somebody that’s like, “Okay, here’s where we’re headed no matter what.” I want to be formed by the work and to watch it unfold.
Right now, I’m thrilled there’s a book I wrote for Harper Collins called Love Heals. It is coming out in September and it’s going to be in Target, we just found out, which is huge.
Congrats, that’s great.
STEVENS: It’s really good, but I think it’s going to open up some new places and friends and doors that we hadn’t thought about before.
For example, we just got back from Greece. We were working in a refugee camp with women who are survivors of what they’re now calling a genocide in Syria. I’m trying to start a new social enterprise there for the women to weave the blankets and the life vests that they wore to cross the sea into welcome mats. They are going to be in that camp for years and years. And they’re going to raise their kids. There are 12,000 refugee children missing out of those camps. Just gone. It’s a place where you want to do some work on prevention from trafficking for sure.
The next place we’re going to go is Nigeria. We’re going to start working making cleaning products. Clean up this mess with young women who have been trafficked into Eastern Europe out of Benin City, Nigeria next summer. We are moving in to double the space of our café here in Nashville, Tennessee. We have 13 employees ready to go when it opens in July. There’s a lot of stuff on the horizon that I’m excited about. No idea where it’s all going to lead.
But that’s what makes it fun, right?